Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss on Writing for Doctor Who and This Season’s Robin Hood Episode

Photo: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Mark Gatiss writes and acts, and we could have an intense debate over which he does better. You’ve seen him onscreen in Game of Thrones as Tycho Nestoris, of the Iron Bank of Braavos, a role he’ll be reprising next year. Even more prominent is his ongoing stint as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s devious brother in Sherlock, the series he not only writes for and stars in, but also co-created and co-produces with Steven Moffat. Yet we rang up Gatiss to chat about Doctor Who, Moffat’s other series, for which Gatiss wrote this past weekend’s episode, entitled “Robot of Sherwood.”

I had a great laugh — many laughs — watching “Robot of Sherwood.”
Oh, good!

As much as I love Doctor Who, I can’t say that it’s often that I have a big grin across my face through an episode.
The whole intention was to write a kind of romp, really. I’ve always loved the Errol Flynn movie. I love Robin Hood, actually, but that film particularly. To me, the essence of Robin Hood is that it’s a fairy tale. I’ve never had much patience for the muggy, grim versions because I think they’re missing the point, really [laughs]! So the chance to do Robin Hood meets Doctor Who was a bit irresistible.

Doctor Who has a tendency to do comedic dialogue, but to do an entire episode that’s rooted in comedy and still have it work as a piece of drama is something different.
It’s certainly the most lighthearted episode of the season. I didn’t think of it as an out-and-out comedy, just the fact that Robin Hood is inherently fun. But at the same time, I think what’s always appealed to me about Doctor Who and drama generally is the ability to sort of flip a coin. I think some of the pathos in this episode is genuinely very affecting, and that’s only because you’re having such a good time, you sort of forget where you’re going with it. That’s certainly the stuff that appeals to me in other dramas — you suddenly find you’re catching yourself because you’ve actually been so removed by something.

The new series especially has this tradition now of going back in time and meeting historical figures. Robin Hood’s a different sort in that he isn’t real. So what led to the decision to try it this way this time?
Russell T. Davies essentially invented the celebrity historical as a new Doctor Who form. In the original series, every now and then there’d be an encounter — Marco Polo or Napoleon — but the idea of this is very much in the DNA of the new series. But as you say, Robin Hood isn’t real, so this episode has the form of the celebrity historical, but it’s with a made-up character. That was really the engine of the whole idea. Clara wants to meet him. The Doctor says there’s no such thing. When they get back to 12th-century Nottingham, it’s essentially like landing in the middle of the Errol Flynn film. Immediately that’s just a funny idea. And then you’ve got a new Doctor who’s less accessible, and slightly grumpily determined to prove that he’s right [about Robin Hood not being real]. And in the face of that, you’ve got this man who won’t stop laughing, who’s an amazing swordsman and archer.

Are you a fan of the ‘80s series Robin of Sherwood?
I always thought Robin Hood is a great idea for a film [but] not a very good idea for a series because, essentially, there isn’t enough story. What tends to happen is they get captured, they go to the castle. Marion gets captured. They rescue her. I mean, you can do it, obviously, but I think it’s just enough for one hit. The Richard Carpenter series very cleverly introduced this mystical element — all of the Herne the Hunter stuff. So, in a way, he sort of merged Robin Hood with a bit of Merlin, a bit of druids and all sorts of English folklore, which I think is the masterstroke of that series. It gave him a lot of places to go to. It’s not just about the sheriff being a baddie; you’ve also got sort of sorcerers and strange mystical things happening. And the weird thing is when Michael Praed left, he effectively regenerated into Jason Connery!

Dare I ask: Praed or Connery?
Oh, it’s Michael Praed, of course!

Back to “Robot of Sherwood,” has anyone else remarked how much Ben Miller’s Sheriff looks like Anthony Ainley’s Master?
I’ve read a couple previews saying that, but it’s genuinely not intentional. To be honest, he’s modeled on Peter Cushing from one of the old Hammer films. It is a Master-y beard, isn’t it?

What have you found different about writing for Capaldi versus Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith?
You always start from the same point: The Doctor is the Doctor. I’ve never actually written a script where I didn’t know who the Doctor was going to be. You just start thinking about the actor’s voice, speech patterns, mannerisms, and the whole attitude. The main thing with Peter is the obvious factor that he’s a lot older than Matt. I knew he wanted to be a lot more skeptical and less accessible while still being lots of fun. And immediately, you start to think of early Tom Baker in that way. One of the things I remember being thrilled about as a child watching the show — Jon Pertwee was my Doctor, and I was devastated when he left — but I remember the thrill of the newness of Tom. There’s a bit in “The Seeds of Doom” when they’re discussing amputating someone’s arm because it’s been infected by the Krynoid. Tom sits there with his hat on like Clint Eastwood and just says, “You must help yourselves.” And it sent goose-bumps down my spine because it’s like, “What? The Doctor’s not like that!” But suddenly he was. And suddenly, in this episode, you’ve got a Doctor who’s quite grumpy with Robin Hood. Matt would probably have gone out for a drink with him! Just the fact that you can suddenly have a change of attitude like that makes the whole thing new and fresh again.

Here’s a question I’ve been dying to ask you for years: Did you actually get to play any ping-pong with Scarlett Johansson in Match Point?
[Big laugh.] No! I played with her double! She was late that day. It was a very curious thing because Woody Allen apparently only goes for like two or three takes, and he’s legendarily straightforward, and everyone’s gone home by 5 o’clock. She was late, and there was a bit of an atmosphere, so I played with her double ‘til she turned up, and then we said hi, and then all my lines were cut. [Laughing] To this day, people ring me up, “I’ve just watched Match Point at 3 in the morning in my hotel,” and they go, “What were you doing?!” I did have some lines that I tried to improvise, but I somehow only survived as a grinning fool. People say to me, “Is Woody Allen a fan?” “Are you mad!? He didn’t even know I was there!”